Passage of the 2018 Farm Bill provides much-needed certainty and support — and not just for Michigan farmers.
The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, commonly known as the Farm Bill, is a multi-faceted piece of legislation that affects Michigan’s farmers and farm workers, equipment manufacturers, food processing businesses, retailers, and many other people across the state.
“Agriculture is a very small percentage of the population overall, yet it has a huge economic impact in states like Michigan,” John Kran, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, told MiBiz. “Only one or two percent of the population is farming, but you have a much higher percentage of people who are involved in the food chain.”
Nationwide, the bill is projected to cost $867 billion over its five-year lifetime, but actual costs could be higher or lower depending on the commodity, crop insurance and nutrition programs. Volatility in the commodity markets and the general economy could have a considerable impact on the bill’s total cost.
“All in all, farmers aren’t going to see a whole lot of change,” said Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association. “It’ll be consistent and that’s a huge win.”
The Farm Bill continues support for specialty crop growers by funding critical research, training, marketing, technical support, and federal programs that purchase specialty crops for school lunches.
With more than 300 different kinds of commodities produced, Michigan ranks second in the country behind California in terms of agricultural diversity. Michigan’s specialty crops include apples, asparagus, blueberries, cabbage, carrots, cherries, Christmas trees, grapes, herbs, maple syrup, plums, strawberries, sweet corn and tomatoes.
“Senator (Debbie) Stabenow has been very committed to making sure specialty crops get a lot of attention,” Byrum said. “That’s really important to Michigan and she has carried the ball.”
Because farming also is a risky venture, farmers need a strong safety net, according to Byrum.
“The margin on virtually every commodity is very thin,” Byrum said. “Farmers have to be good managers.”
The 2018 Farm Bill will equip Michigan farmers with risk management tools that help them stay afloat during unexpected disasters, while also allowing them to tap into new markets to boost their bottom lines.
“It seems like in every Farm Bill, crop insurance has expanded a little more to include more crops,” Kran said. “Crop insurance was maintained and not cut, which is critical for us.”
The expanded crop insurance improves access for veterans, beginning farmers, and Michigan’s fruit and vegetable growers.
“If you’re a specialty crop grower in the West Michigan area, you may be buying crop insurance to help you through the ups and downs you might face as a blueberry grower or as an apple grower,” Kran said.
A brand new part of the Farm Bill will allocate permanent support toward export opportunities and funding to help farmers access and develop trade in new foreign markets, as opposed to the former funding stream that was appropriated yearly, according to Kran.
“We’re not going to have to go fight every year to make sure those have the money they need to be sustained,” he said.
Improvements for Dairy
Perhaps more than any other producers, dairy farmers in Michigan and across the nation have been struggling to get by in a period of persistently low milk prices.
Through the 2018 Farm Bill, the dairy sector will gain improved coverage options at much more affordable rates, Kran said. The bill renames the Margin Protection Program (MPP) as Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC), recognizing that the former has left a sour taste in many farmers’ mouths.
“When they structured the last program, they didn’t accurately anticipate some of the challenges the industry would face from a supply standpoint,” Kran said. “People might have signed up for the program, but when they needed help, they weren’t able to get it.”
Under the new legislation, dairy farmers should be able to tap into assistance more easily when milk prices drop while farming costs remain high.
As well, investments in research that supports agricultural science and technology research at Michigan State University also are included in the bill, fueling innovation and safeguarding Michigan’s agricultural economy against pests and fungus.
Through targeted conservation efforts, the Farm Bill also aims to protect the Great Lakes and rivers, while preserving wildlife habitat to support hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation.
“Conservation is important to our members to make sure that we’re doing our part to help with water quality and reduce any type of nutrient or sediment runoff,” Kran said. “Being ‘The Great Lakes State,’ that’s probably more important to our state than most.”
Finding Common Ground
The Farm Bill started in 1933 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It had three original goals: to keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers, ensure an adequate food supply for the population, and protect and sustain the country’s natural resources.
Since 1965, Farm Bills have been passed with general consistency every five or six years through a largely bipartisan vote, making them a political unicorn in an increasingly divisive environment. According to Vice President Mike Pence, although the previous law expired Sept. 30 and the new bill did not pass until December, this is the first time since 1990 that a farm bill was introduced and passed in the same year.
“We’re at a period right now where the general farm economy has dropped about 50 percent over the last five years and this is the biggest drop we’ve seen since the Great Depression,” Kran said. “Getting this done at the end of the year was critical to us.”
Wide support could stem from the legislation building off of the successes of previous Farm Bills, collaboration, and the fine-tuning of the programs that have worked well and gained in popularity.
“You’ve got both rural and urban interests involved with the Farm Bill. It doesn’t fall on party lines. There is an impact in every congressional district across the country and every state,” Kran said. “Conservation, forestry, and nutrition were all added over time to this broader bill that’s more than just farming. That’s probably why we’ve been successful.”
Just 47 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted against the Farm Bill. Among them was U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican representing Michigan’s 3rd congressional district, who called the legislation “one of the biggest corporate welfare bills.”
In the U.S. Senate, which passed the legislation 87-13, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow is the top-ranking Democrat on the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, and was its former chairwoman.
“There’s no question she’s been an asset in that role,” Byrum said.
Stabenow claims the Farm Bill is a “victory that has Michigan on every page.” In addition to supporting Michigan farmers, the bill will also play a role in protecting Michigan’s Great Lakes, investing in small towns and rural communities, promoting the state’s forestry, supporting local food economies, and providing healthy food for families, she said in a statement.
Supporting Food Access
Nearly 80 percent of the 2018 Farm Bill funds nutritional programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps low-income individuals and families afford to purchase vegetables, fruits, dairy products, meat, poultry, fish, bread and cereals.
Case Visser of Zeeland-based Visser Farms LLC says his 200-plus-acre produce operation is small enough that it is mainly affected by the nutritional assistance portion of the bill. In addition to selling to about 40 farm-to-table restaurants, the Visser family sells their goods at nine farmer’s markets around Michigan. That is where they see the influence of Michigan’s “Double-Up Food Bucks” program, which doubles the value of SNAP benefits spent on local fruits and vegetables.
“Seeing it firsthand makes me very passionate about it because you see that it works and it really does an amazing thing for families that really need it,” Visser told MiBiz.
Visser and other local farmers get reimbursed dollar-for-dollar on the amount of produce sold through the program. Although he has seen declining numbers at farmer’s markets in recent years, Visser said the program still accounts for about 25 percent of the farm’s income.
“The Double-Up Food benefits and SNAP benefits help even it out, even with the lack of customers,” Visser said. “It is a very huge part of our business.”
According to Kran, the Farm Bill and its benefits for farmers, food processors, retailers, and residents are now in the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for its administration. But for all of the Farm Bill’s bipartisan support, partisanship may still throw a wrench in the process.
“Hopefully, once the (government) shutdown gets resolved, the USDA can work on implementation and go from there,” Kran said.